University of Vermont

The People’s Collectors

Museum exhibits works from famed Vogel collection

Dorothy and Herb Vogel
Dorothy and Herb Vogel. (Photo courtesy of the National Gallery of Art)

Janie Cohen, Fleming Museum director, unlocks the entrance to the Wolcott Gallery and cautions Mateus Teixeira, her young UVM alumnus intern, and me to wait a minute while she switches on the lights. There’s excitement for a first look at the in-progress installation of “Dorothy and Herb Vogel: Fifty Works for Fifty States,” an exhibit that Cohen and Teixeira have been working on curating for months. But that needs to be tempered with some common sense about practical matters like the potential for an unhappy meeting of foot and sculpture in a dark gallery.

Lights on, risk managed, Cohen and Teixeira point out favorite works and discuss pieces that take on a different aspect than expected hanging on the gallery’s walls. And they also can’t help some bursts of laughter, the release of seeing something long imagined suddenly become real.

The minimalist and post-minimalist works, on display beginning September 3, traveled a long and somewhat unlikely path to Vermont. Usually the collector is the last thing you’d consider on the information card next to a painting. But Fleming Museum visitors familiar with the lives of Dorothy and Herbert Vogel will likely find it hard to separate the works on display in the year ahead from their provenance.

Cats, turtles, art

A brief tutorial or refresher on Dorothy and Herbert Vogel: A married couple of humble means, a librarian and a postal worker, the Vogels lived Spartan lives in a one-bedroom NYC apartment and put all the money they could into collecting art. From 1962 to 1992 they amassed a collection of some five thousand pieces, every one of them wedged into their apartment, along with eight cats and Herb’s aquariums filled with exotic turtles. The Vogels bought what they liked—supporting artists, many of the minimalist school, as they developed. They would become beloved, near mythic figures in the New York art world as their personal collection grew with works by artists such as Chuck Close, Christo, and Sol LeWitt.

In 1992, with scarcely room to move for the art work hung on their walls, filed and piled everywhere between, the Vogels donated their collection to the National Gallery of Art. “We have both worked for the government and we both like the idea of giving it back to the people of the United States,” Dorothy Vogel said at the time.

In 2008, that same democratic spirit would motivate the Vogels to take another step in bringing their collection to the people. Five thousand works, obviously, was far beyond what the National Gallery would ever be able to exhibit. Rather than have some pieces languish in storage forever, the Vogels conceived the idea of giving fifty works to fifty museums, one in each state.

Turns your head around

From the perspective of the Fleming staff, what was it like to have fifty pieces from this famed collection roll up to the museum in a truck one day? Cohen suggests there was a certain Christmas morning aspect; that is, if your mom and dad required you to unwrap your presents very, very carefully and give that new baby doll a few weeks to acclimate before you played with her.

The National Gallery divvied up the collection into lots of fifty; individual museums didn’t have a say in what they received. But as the Vogels collected some artists deeply, with hundreds of works, each museum was sure to receive at least one work by the likes of Edda Renouf, Robert Barry, Daryl Trivieri, Richard Tuttle, Charles Clough, and Richard Francisco.

Cohen says the fifty works from the Vogel collection provide “a snapshot of a really important period in modern American art that wasn’t formerly represented” in the Fleming’s permanent holdings. She believes the show — which will be on display throughout the entire academic year with different pieces rotating in — will be of particular interest to art faculty and students. Teixeira adds that the depth of the Vogels collecting, their pattern of following an artist through his or her career, offers a window on changing approaches. “I think that’s the strength of our selection,” he says, “it does show a very clear progression from minimalism through post-minimalism.”  

Cohen was short-handed as she worked on curating the show in the interim between the departure of former curator Aimee Marcereau DeGalan and arrival of new curator Debra Wood. She was fortunate that Teixeira, a 2012 UVM grad with a triple major in mathematics, physics, and English, came to her looking for an internship to build his experience in the museum/gallery world, yet another interest. Teixeira brought his formidable intellect, a taste for dogged research, writing skill, and a keen aesthetic sense to the work, according to Cohen. “Mateus has been a highly able and unexpected help to say the least,” she says.

Asked to name a favorite work in the show, Teixeira is quick to choose Sound Piece by Edda Renouf, a small work that he says “looks like white noise; the whole thing reads like interference.”

Cohen nods in agreement. “Sound Piece” spoken for, she goes with Untitled (2 parts) by Loren Calaway, a work that initially has the looks of very fine cabinetry… but not. “It’s confusing in a nice way,” Cohen says. “It really turns your head around a little bit.”

Beyond the individual pieces, many visitors to the show may come away most struck by the collectors who devoted more than thirty years of their lives to unabashed appreciation and support of contemporary art. The show will endeavor to make that achievement, a work of art in itself, very present in the show. Among other efforts, they will screen Herb & Dorothy, a 2008 documentary about the Vogels, on Sunday, Sept. 22, at 2 p.m.

Cohen says, “In this show we really wanted to get to the collectors, their style of collecting, and how they pulled this incredible thing off.”